You’ve got a friend in me

My friend Paul posted to Facebook today that he was having trouble with a WordPress install. WordPress refused to serve any post with a comment on it, preferring to issue an Error 500 instead. I’ve been mucking about with WordPress for, like, 7 whole months now, so of course I volunteered to take a look. (My best guess is that he’s got an out-of-date proprietary theme which is misbehaving, and he’ll end up either paying to upgrade it, choosing a new theme, or figuring out how to hack it with someone who actually knows what he’s doing.)

Animated gif of John Cleese getting his hat shot off in
“Today my jurisdiction ends here.”

This speaks a little bit to the Reclaim/Connectivist ethos and the way personal learning networks work, but I’ve had two specific thoughts I wanted to reflect on.

Technology and The Illusion of Choice

Zen [Explored]

A world of “reclaimed” pedagogy is necessarily going to involve more interactions like this. Faculty members will get a project started, and come looking for help in media res when something stops working. Support staff will be asked to jump into systems they didn’t configure, maybe didn’t even know existed. This will be a real challenge for people and organizations with a binary approach to “support” – that things are either inside the zone or not, and clear algorithms exist to explain whether or not a project gets assistance.

That binary, of course, is an illusion. No matter how big your organization, there’s always some point at which you throw up your hands and say “well, that’s just how it comes from (vendor name).” Or you say “support means reload it and start over,” or “here’s the workaround and we’ll fix it in the summer,” or some other phrase which explains that “support” isn’t really an on/off switch but a complex equation which includes available resources and institutional and personal priorities.

I wonder how we set expectations for this kind of service. I suspect one answer is that we change from talking about tools we support, to talking about tasks we support within tools. Much of “our” software is just too complex to claim that we can help you do anything it advertises it’s able to do.

We’ll also need to talk more about the level of support you can expect – whether we’ll implement a fix, or provide faculty with tested directions, or just sit next to you and say “huh, that’s a new one.” That’s going to require faculty to adopt a different definition of ownership over their tools – and it will require (many) technologists to adopt a different definition of responsibility to assist.It’ll still be a job, and there will still be service level expectations, but I think there will also be a new kind of community growing up. My neighbor once told me that he couldn’t fix my riding mower’s starter, but he could show me how to hotwire it with a screwdriver. I think some part of our job will get more “neighborly” like that.

Mister Rogers

hello, neighbor

Love and Service Professions

My friend was having trouble with his site, and was brave enough to ask for help. I don’t know the subject deeply, but I care enough to take a look. I took the time to explain my thoughts – I wanted to teach Paul anything I could, and I didn’t want any unstated assumptions to gum up a website with 15 years worth of work in it.

This can’t just be about pre-existing friendships or high-priority websites, though, because I’ve provided similar (if much less extensive) advice to strangers in communities like YouShow and DS106. I have received more than equal advice and encouragement in return – maybe it’s about models of behavior? Shared group identities?

The small nagging voice asks me if I do as well at my workplace as I do in these extracurriculars. I’m reasonably confident that I do – certainly I can list big and small projects where I made sure people were more empowered to reach their goals. For that matter, I’ve got a list of “fake it till you make it” jobs where I think I communicated caring, even though my real goal was to get some technical problem out of my hair. But – what about the other ones, the interactions where I’m basically asked for a transaction, and that’s about all I provide?

How can I make there be fewer of those? Even given that sometimes the transaction is all that’s required or desired – how can it be delivered with lagniappe?

I’ve written about this before – what can we do as instructional technologists to expand the love in the world? If my job is ultimately about nurturing the development of increasingly empowered people, what are the steps I need to take to make sure people know that my office is a safe place where they can grow? (Even if, today, all they want to grow into is someone whose Moodle gradebook works right.)

Image credits

Image 1 – John Cleese in Silvarado; animated gif by Alan Lopuszynski at

Image 2 – Zen [Explored] by Riccardo Cuppini. CC licensed BY-NC-ND 2.0 at

Image 3 – Mister Rogers by Grant Lindsay. CC licensed BY-ND 2.0 at

7 thoughts on “You’ve got a friend in me”

  1. Joe, well said! Also like how you juxtaposed professional and personal narratives within your blog. Like the visuals too . . . yes, I’m finally getting the whole “photo essay” perspective now, and oddly finding myself wanting to insert gifs into all my writing projects! Love those gifs! Moreover, a lot of what you said really got me thinking about the explosion of digital literacy within academia settings and wondering about just how students/faculty are going to manage the plethora of digital platforms they are increasingly being asked to create and curate.

    Equally important, as you discussed (hope I understood correctly), the role of IT support–where are the boundaries? We, as in students/faculty, can’t expect IT support to fix each and every tech glitch and/or computer malfunctioning problem that comes up; particularly, as you mentioned, with the growing complexity and array of tools and software in play at individual levels. I’m glad you linked Jim Groom’s blog, for the “reclaimed pedagogy” concept is something I haven’t given much thought to, since my mind is mostly preoccupied with my Rhet/Comp studies /teaching strategies–and of course, keeping up with digital technologies/humanities and concepts of connected learning and what it all entails. The time has definitely come for technology users (note to self!) to start taking a more proactive approach in educating themselves about the tech/electronic devices and software programs they are employing.

    Youshow15 has been a great help and delight and source of encouragement (#ccourses ’14, as well) for me on many different levels, but especially for the digital complexities I’m trying to navigate and negotiate. Digital ownership and citizenship: it’s all about the mindset, and of course, exposure to the concepts at work in 21st century learning/living.

    I really like this point you brought forth: “[B]ut I think there will also be a new kind of community growing up. My neighbor once told me that he couldn’t fix my riding mower’s starter, but he could show me how to hotwire it with a screwdriver. I think some part of our job will get more “neighborly” like that.”

    All in all, great blog! I’m inspired to get my blog in shape (and to master that nice, but unwieldy, WordPress, until something else comes along to take its place) and to start blogging about something, anything of interest.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Sheila!

    I appreciate your thoughts about the intense complexity faculty members are asked to balance – disciplinary content, disciplinary signature pedagogies, collegiate goals, pedagogies from outside the discipline, personal goals of teacher and students – and then we add the range of things we call “digital literacies.” No wonder some things have to fall off the list!

    This is where central IT can add a lot of value by selecting a smaller number of tools to support at a higher level. Faculty members can make their own choices (or should be allowed to) – but that doesn’t mean they should have to. The management issue is a serious one, and I think we’re all going to have to grapple with it – faculty as they think about what they ask of students, and IT as we think about what we ask of faculty.

    I’m reminded of Barry Schwartz’s work (and others’) which shows that people like the idea of having many choices, but in practice, they have an easier time making choices and being satisfied with them when they have fewer options. Just like in a classroom, introducing choices a few a time, with lots of scaffolding, may be a more productive way to develop faculty toward a “reclaimed” pedagogy.

    Good luck with your blog! The thing I have the most trouble with is just hitting “publish” when I know I still have more to say. But I’ll _always_ have more to say… so find a stopping point, say “more later”, and give us what you’ve got!

  3. As someone who tries to answer many of the cries for help, I sometimes marvel, as I did 15 years ago, that people individually contact me with an urgent “My wodget screen has futzits on it, and it says error 433. What does that mean?” I find so much of the expertise they place in me is a matter of me looking things up in google, and then phrasing an answer for them.

    But I do see more signs where people in tech trouble are taking a bit of that on themselves.

    I think I am getting is your question how to people who need help understand the expectations that you may not be an oracle of everything. I find a lot of it is getting helping people understand how to ask for help.

    The ones that come in as “ITS BROKEN CAN YOU FIX IT?” I go back to something I heard about bringing your car into the mechanic. The advise was not to say “I think its my fuel pump”; they do not need your diagnosis, they need something like “It turns on fine when the engine is cold, but when its warm, it cranks and cranks and makes a sound like woooooooooonk”/ Mechanics need symptoms- this is why bug report systems ask “What were you trying to do?” “What steps did you take?” “And what happened that you did not expect”.

    I constantly re-iterate to my ds106 students they should never spend more than _____ minutes (20 is my usual) trying to solve a single problem before asking for help (via email forum, twitter). I should never read their blog or see a tweet saying how they spent 2 hours trying to edit a channel mask in Photoshop.

    It can work

    But I think I read also in your musings that its important to show people how you solve problems, its not a wizard behind the curtain thing, but how you search and dig for the stuff to fix what you dont know how to fix.

    It’s all fish catching lessons.

  4. Yes, Alan, these are definitely two of the points I wanted to make. Our impact as instructional technologists is limited if all we do is explain to people that the whosis settings have been moved in the new version, as opposed to teaching people what our problem-solving strategies are, and how to collect evidence about a problem well.

    On the other hand, I love your “20 minute limit” idea. That’s probably something I could model better. I tend to say “I’m going to go ask around” instead of letting people see how I ask for help.

    (My favorite story about this involves a voicemail from a faculty member in which he said “I’m getting this error, and I noticed from watching you that you just plug the error messages into Google. So I did that, and the first site said to change a setting, so I did and it didn’t help. And the second site said to delete the preference file, so I did and it didn’t help. And the third site said to reinitialize my hard drive and I figured I better call you and see if that’s a good idea.”)

  5. Two items:

    Thanks for the thought invoking piece. I love the word lagniappe. I now have this idea in my head as “the 13th donut”–service beyond what is expected. I have lived much of my life with this as my ideal, sometimes achieved, sometimes taken advantage of by others, and sometimes removed, a withdrawal of goodwill.

    Also, here is a sample of that 13th donut:

    The annotated link should be viewable by you and is a way to annotate in situ using Diigo. Are you familiar?

    Again thanks for getting me thinking about my own credo of service. I look forward to many happy reciprocations.

    1. Thanks for the cool annotation! I do, in fact, keep a Diigo bookmark list myself, but I haven’t plumbed the annotation tool.

      It’s a better world, isn’t it, when we try to give the 13th donut to everyone, and only withdraw it from those who prove that they’re taking advantage?

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